Environmental Activism and the 2013 BC Election — Part 1

Environmental Activism and the 2013 BC Election — Part 1

The NDP made the fatal mistake of underestimating their opponents. The BC Liberals got their act together and united the Right – they won 44 percent of the votes, while support for the BC Conservatives collapsed. They mobilized the vote for the ruling-class agenda of holding the line on public spending, low taxes for the corporations and wealthy, incentives for capitalist economic growth, more privatization and attacks on workers’ rights.

A centerpiece of the Liberal campaign was support for resource extraction industries. Taking a page from the Harper government playbook, they successfully fueled development fever by hyping liquid natural gas (LNG) exports as key to BC’s economic growth, job creation, balanced budgets and paying off the provincial debt.

The NDP: Lacklustre Campaign

Meanwhile, as front runner the NDP ran a supposedly safe and innocuous campaign under the slogan “Change for the better, one practical step at a time.” They planned to tweak things by very mildly raising taxes for the rich and the corporations. But the large majority of the huge tax cuts benefitting the wealthy and corporations and other measures enacted by the Liberals during their 12 years in office would remain intact.

Rather than offering major changes and badly needed reforms, the NDP sought to limit their spending promises. For instance, welfare recipients in desperate need of an increase were offered an insulting $20 a month more. The NDP also failed to address the severe housing crisis, refusing to support a taxpayer-funded program to build badly needed low- income social housing.

The NDP leadership only aspired to become good managers of a slightly more humane and sustainable capitalism. Despite their social democratic roots, they sounded ever more like the US Democratic Party under Obama. They seem to be evolving in what some have termed a social liberal direction (to distinguish it from the hard-line neoliberal agenda promoted by the BC Liberals).

The NDP ran a lacklustre campaign that failed to inspire or motivate people to vote (their vote fell from the 2009 election). Their failure to offer any meaningful alternative contributed to voter apathy, a low voter turnout (52 percent) and their own defeat.

The election also took place in an atmosphere of demobilization, especially of the labour movement, whose leadership opted for the passive (and once again failed) tactic of putting all its eggs in the basket of electing an NDP government.

The NDP is committed to economic growth, jobs and sustainable development. They support resource developments that create jobs, increase government revenues and allow to them avoid conflict with capital and social movements alike by avoiding both large deficits and drastic austerity.

Flip-Flops on the Environment

On environmental issues, NDP politicians talked out of both sides of their mouths. They offered a muddy and inconsistent message that sometimes focused on economic development and on other occasions raised a few environmental concerns.

The provincial and federal NDP were willing to speak out (for what it is worth) against the highly unpopular Enbridge pipeline. However, their attitude to pipelines seemed to be determined by hyper-pragmatic political considerations rather than a clear and strong commitment to environmental causes.

Federally, NDP leader Thomas Mulcair has made it very clear that the NDP does not support shutting down tar sands development. The federal NDP supports the development of Line 9, which would carry tar sands bitumen east to Ontario and Quebec, and would supposedly create jobs in Ontario. It could possibly be extended even further to Saint John, New Brunswick on the Atlantic coast.

The BC NDP leadership supports LNG exports, the Pacific Trails Pipeline and the fracking of shale gas. Their pro-fracking position upset more environmentally conscious supporters, but the leadership brushed off criticism by calling for more study of the impacts.

There has been lots of opposition by local residents and even civic politicians to the proposed expansion of the Kinder Morgan pipeline, which would carry tar sands bitumen to Burnaby on Burrard Inlet. There is also major concern about and opposition to plans for a large scale increase in tanker traffic on the BC coast. Many fear a major oil spill will create untold ecological damage.

Prior to the election campaign, the BC NDP leadership had taken very standoffish and non-committal position – refusing to oppose Kinder Morgan expansion, much less take a general anti-pipelines stance.

But in the middle of the election, the NDP did an about-face in an effort to shore up its environmentalist credentials and prevent the environmental vote from bleeding heavily to the Greens. For the very first time, party leader Adrian Dix said he would oppose the expansion of Kinder Morgan. His statement was well received and praised by NGOs, and was seen as a win for those opposing Kinder Morgan.

However this flip-flop was vigorously denounced in the capitalist press. Liberal negative, US-style attack ads had portayed Dix as untrustworthy. Now Christy Clark pounced, claiming the NDP was against all major resource development projects. She successfully put the NDP on the defensive.

Contrary to Premier Clark’s accusations, the NDP both federally and provincially remains very wedded to pro-capitalist economic policies. As such, they are not opposed to expanding resource extraction. They simply want to mitigate the worst environmental consequences.

In response to the Liberal attack ads, Dix reaffirmed the NDP’s support for forestry, mining and LNG development, but the damage to his faltering campaign had been done.

Low Expectations

Environmental and other activists were not united on how to approach the BC election. The most pragmatic NGOs and environmentalists favoured the NDP, focusing on electing a government they hoped to lobby and influence. Despite their low expectations, many labour activists and some social activists cast a tactical vote for the NDP in order to defeat the Liberals.

However, not all environmentalists and activists favoured this view. The Green Party received a substantial hearing, and had real appeal to those who question the wisdom of unchecked capitalist economic growth. The Green Party had a better position than the NDP on many environmental issues, the impending climate crisis, and some social issues. Of course it had more freedom to advance progressive policies, since it was not realistically running to govern.

Although the Green Party leadership seeks support from across the political spectrum, it is constrained by its rejection of explicitly left or right ideologies, and supports the use of market mechanisms to achieve its goals.

The Green Party was held back by the first-past-the-post electoral system, which creates pressure for a useful vote to elect sufficient Members of the Legislative Assembly to form a government. Nonetheless the Green Party emerged as BC’s third party, winning 8 percent of the popular vote (despite not running a full slate of candidates) and electing its first ever MLA.

For the most part, people looking for a strongly anti-neoliberal left green alternative were out of luck. And the prospects for building any substantial left electoral alternatives to the NDP in BC are going to remain dismal without proportional representation.

Many radical activists believe with good reason that voting by itself won’t change anything. Moreover, most of BC is unceded indigenous land. Some indigenous activists and their non-indigenous supporters see the colonial settler state as illegitimate.

Not surprisingly, many activists look to non-electoral ways to change the world. One of the big challenges is to build strong movements against the neo-liberal capitalist agenda, which in BC centrally involves the capitalist drive to rapidly extract resources by pillaging the earth.

This is Part 1 of a two-part article reflecting on the recent election and the state of social movements in British Columbia. Part 2 on the growing movement of opposition in BC to pipelines and resource extraction has been published here.

Harold Lavender is one of the editors of New Socialist Webzine and a member of Rising Tide Vancouver Coast Salish Territories.